Biden, Bernardin, and today

George Weigel

Given the seriousness with which the post-Watergate Washington Post takes itself, it seems unlikely that its editors strive for hilarity in devising headlines. Whatever their intention, though, they managed the not-inconsiderable feat of making me laugh out loud at breakfast on May 20, when the headline on the jump from a page-one story about former vice president Biden’s current campaign read: Biden’s team says there’s no need for Democrats to stampede toward the left.

Indeed, boys and girls, there is not. For judging by the positions taken by most of its two dozen presidential wannabes, the party is there already, firmly stationed in the farthermost left field bleachers of American politics. The evidence? Widespread support for infanticide, cloaked in the guise of promoting “women’s health.” The inane “Green New Deal.” The historically illiterate fascination with socialism (which has never worked and never will). Medicare for all. (Have any of the ladies and gentlemen proposing this ever dealt with the Medicare bureaucracy?) Disdain for the conscience rights of medical professionals who refuse to participate in the culture of death. The fulsome embrace of transgender ideology, despite its refutation by scientific evidence. Packing the Supreme Court. Eliminating the Electoral College (and thereby dismantling American federalism). The pre-mortem beatification of James Comey. (OK, I’m making that one up….but stay tuned.)

That Post headline was all the more ironic in that Mr. Biden, whose “moderation” is evidently not without limits, recently recanted his heresy in previously supporting the Hyde Amendment (which bans federal funding of abortion save in cases of rape, incest, and direct threat to a mother’s life), telling an ACLU volunteer that the amendment “can’t stay.” Rather a far cry, that, from the letter Biden wrote to a Delaware constituent in 1994, in which he bragged at having “consistently – on no fewer than 50 occasions – voted against federal funding of abortion.” But that was then, this is now, and the stampede is on, no matter what those Biden aides are telling gullible journalists.

Joe Biden is by no means the only presidential candidate or politician bending to ideological extremities of one sort or another today. But his case is of particular interest to Catholics, for Biden famously wears his Catholicism on his sleeve – perhaps most memorably on May 2, 2011,when he was photographed in the White House Situation Room with a rosary entwined in his fingers, while he, President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and others awaited reports on the SEAL Team Six raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice.

Yet a year later, the same Vice President Biden was filmed dancing merrily in the aisles at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, holding up a pro-choice placard during a demonstration celebrating the legal killing of unborn children. How can this be?

In can be, in part, because of the way the “consistent ethic of life,” which some are trying to resurrect, has been twisted out of shape by politicians, and by partisans looking for cover for their favored candidates.

I, for one, have no doubts about the pro-life credentials of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, principal promoter of the “consistent ethic” in U.S. public policy debates. But decades after the Chicago prelate first proposed linking Catholic pro-life advocacy to other issues involving the defense of the dignity of the human person and, in Bernardin’s case, nuclear arms control, the effect of the “consistent ethic” argument is clear: it has provided cover to Democratic politicians who either buy pro-“choice” ideology, or who fear challenging the well-financed and quite implacable pro-abortion forces in their party, by allowing these solons to suggest that they’re batting .333, or .500, or even .750 on the “life issues,” because of their stand on health care, or immigration, or nuclear non-proliferation.

Those are not inconsequential issues; they have serious moral dimensions; they surely involve the dignity of the human person. But they do not, and cannot, substitute for the grave moral obligation to reverse the abortion license, the lethal logic of which now extends to the infanticide of children who somehow manage to survive the “procedure” (according to the governor of Virginia and more than a few Democratic presidential aspirants).

Some may imagine Cardinal Bernardin applauding, or at least tolerating, Joe Biden’s flip on the Hyde Amendment. To do so, however, is to dishonor the cardinal’s memory, while continuing to let self-seeking politicians distort the meaning of “Catholicism” in American public life.

Featured image by Marc Nozell via Flickr

COMING UP: The Pell case: Developments down under

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In three weeks, a panel of senior judges will hear Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of the unjust verdict rendered against him at his retrial in March, when he was convicted of “historical sexual abuse.” That conviction did not come close to meeting the criterion of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is fundamental to criminal law in any rightly-ordered society. The prosecution offered no corroborating evidence sustaining the complainant’s charge. The defense demolished the prosecution’s case, as witness after witness testified that the alleged abuse simply could not have happened under the circumstances charged — in a busy cathedral after Mass, in a secured space.

Yet the jury, which may have ignored instructions from the trial judge as to how evidence should be construed, returned a unanimous verdict of guilty. At the cardinal’s sentencing, the trial judge never once said that he agreed with the jury’s verdict; he did say, multiple times, that he was simply doing what the law required him to do. Cardinal Pell’s appeal will be just as devastating to the prosecution’s case as was his defense at both his first trial (which ended with a hung jury, believed to have favored acquittal) and the retrial. What friends of the cardinal, friends of Australia, and friends of justice must hope is that the appellate judges will get right what the retrial jury manifestly got wrong.

That will not be easy, for the appellate judges will have been subjected to the same public and media hysteria over Cardinal Pell that was indisputably a factor in his conviction on charges demonstrated to be, literally, incredible. Those appellate judges will also know, however, that the reputation of the Australian criminal justice system is at stake in this appeal. And it may be hoped that those judges will display the courage and grit in the face of incoming fire that the rest of the Anglosphere has associated with “Australia” since the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

In jail for two months now, the cardinal has displayed a remarkable equanimity and good cheer that can only come from a clear conscience. The Melbourne Assessment Prison allows its distinguished prisoner few visitors, beyond his legal team; but those who have gone to the prison intending to cheer up a friend have, in correspondence with me, testified to having found themselves cheered and consoled by Cardinal Pell — a man whose spiritual life was deeply influenced by the examples of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More during Henry VIII’s persecution of the Church in 16th-century England. The impact of over a half-century of reflection on those epic figures is now being displayed to Cardinal Pell’s visitors and jailers, during what he describes as his extended “retreat.”

Around the world, and in Australia itself, calmer spirits than those baying for George Pell’s blood (and behaving precisely like the deranged French bigots who cheered when the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus was condemned to a living death on Devil’s Island) have surfaced new oddities — to put it gently — surrounding the Pell Case.

How is it, for example, that the complainant’s description of the sexual assault he alleges Cardinal Pell committed bears a striking resemblance — to put it gently, again — to an incident of clerical sexual abuse described in Rolling Stone in 2011? How is it that edited transcripts of a post-conviction phone conversation between the cardinal and his cathedral master of ceremonies (who had testified to the sheer physical impossibility of the charges against Pell being true) got into the hands (and thence into the newspaper writing) of a reporter with a history of anti-Pell bias and polemic? What is the web of relationships among the virulently anti-Pell sectors of the Australian media, the police in the state of Victoria, and senior Australian political figures with longstanding grievances against the politically incorrect George Pell? What is the relationship between the local Get Pell gang and those with much to lose from his efforts to clean up the Vatican’s finances?

And what is the state of serious investigative journalism in Australia, when these matters are only investigated by small-circulation journals and independent researchers?

An “unsafe” verdict in Australia is one a jury could not rationally have reached. Friends of truth must hope that the appellate judges, tuning out the mob, will begin to restore safety and rationality to public life Down Under in June.

Featured image by CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images